The first chapter in  Monotasking by Staffan Noteberg is the introduction, titled The Five Axioms of Monotasking.  As a reminder, an axiom is a statement that is regarded as being established, accepted, or that is self-evident. These five truths form the foundation from which the book proceeds. Each of the five axioms Staffan identifies is useful individually if taken to heart and then used to shape how you work. As a whole they are powerful.

The first axiom states that tasks stay in our consciousness until completed or deleted. There are all sorts of consequences to this truth. The one that I fall prey to is waking up in the middle of the night thinking about work-in-progress.  This also impacts axiom 4.

I paraphrase the second axiom as task switching is an energy vampire.  This is not the first time we have been presented with the negative externalities of task switching.  Most recently we revisited the topic in our re-read of Tame your Work Flow in which the authors lay out several experiments that show the negative effects of task switching.

Taken together these two axioms point to a more nefarious problem. If we assume that we mentally hold on to tasks that are not complete, then the more of those we have in our head at a time, the less focus we have to apply to any task we are currently working on. This creates a downward spiral.

The third axiom generated a great deal of thought when I first read it.  In essence, it states that we are responsible for prioritizing our “now.” Staffan suggests that we ask ourselves “What’s the best use of my time right now?” on a regular cadence (from Alan Lakein’s How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life). Knowing the best use of your time requires having an established goal and then prioritizing what you are doing to accomplish that goal. Tasks that do not progress you toward your goals should not be prioritized. 

The fourth axiom is about self-care. Humans are a complex organism that requires sleep, breaks, the right kind of food, and exercise to function.  Staffan calls this an investment. Failing on any level probably creates a debt that will need to be paid off sooner or later.

The fifth axiom is that there is no one size fits all approach to how we work best. Frameworks, whether monotasking, Pomodoro, or even Scrum, are great, but we all have to find what works best for us. At a personal level, this is easier than in a group or team scenario where compromises are needed to establish harmony. If agile has taught us anything, it is that we should periodically reflect on how we are working and identify improvements. All human systems must evolve to stay effective and relevant.

One of the more powerful ideas in the introduction is that all of us own the responsibility of controlling our WIP. In many circumstances, culture is often cited as an excuse for not being able to control WIP and the need to multitask. Culture is the outcome of accumulated behavior, and behaviors can are changeable.

As I re-read the introduction I identified two potential behavior changes based on the five axioms.  They are:

  1. Resume doing daily retrospectives (focused on Axiom 5)
  2. Quiesce Teams and Slack (focused on Axiom 2)

I am going to resume daily retrospectives which I stopped doing early last year as I adjusted my work life after I stopped leaving the house on a daily basis. Option 3 would have the biggest impact but will require more groundwork given expectations of instant availability. Has anyone experimented with quiescing chats in Team and Slack (or other similar tools)?